Thursday, October 15, 2015

Whiteness and the Three Levels of Identity

For years, I wondered why white people, myself included at one time, responded the way they did to racial issues whenever they came up.

It was like there was some secret script being passed around from which we were all reading when confronted by a person of colour or even when the potential of such a thing was in the air. There were two kinds of responses. Always the same.

And then one day, it clicked. 

The seed was planted during a diversity workshop in Vancouver, at a round table with my peers. All of us, 15 years or so younger at the time, faced a task of creating something with lego. It was a fun icebreaker but also acted as an unexpected set up for an exercise about identity. 

The crux of the workshop was that there were three equal but different levels of identity: Personal, Collective and Universal and that they overlapped each other like circles in a Venn diagram.

"There are some things about who you are," she pointed out. "That are only true for you. Ways you are like a snowflake, utterly unique in the universe - this Personal level of who you are. There are other ways in which the Universal level is true and we are all one. And then there are the things we share culturally and in groups - the Collective level. For example, there are things white people experience may be different from the things indigenous people experience. Women will have different experiences than men."

After she spoke, we were asked to create something out of the Lego together and then, when it was done, to name it. Out Lego sculpture was clearly the best one in the room and we took great pride in it when it came our turn to introduce ourselves. Our group took on the sculptures name as the identity of our group.

"That's how fast it happens." the facilitator pointed out. I think she wanted to lift up how fast groupings can become exclusionary and inward looking and how fast this Collective Level of identity can be set and the dangers this can bring.

I sat with what she said for years. 

It became a useful lense to honour the different things I was seeing without making any of them wrong. 

And one day, after sitting in one too many circles of people in which a person of colour was expressing their frustration with white people and white people were getting predictably defensive and offering up the same two responses which caused more upset and resignation from the people of colour, something struck me about these three levels. I saw something I had never seen before and the seeing of it struck me forcefully.

White people do not have a collective sense of themselves. 

Not in any felt or meaningful way. Perhaps it's because whiteness has a history that is so recent and shallow. Perhaps it's because almost everything in this culture is steeped in whiteness and so white culture has simply become culture. White culture is simply 'normal'. Perhaps it's because whiteness has no capacity to carry deep memory

The spark that lit the fuse for this bomb of this awareness came in noticing how often white people would say, "I have no culture." as if there could be nothing truer than this sad, pitiable fact. As if whiteness was not, itself, a culture.

I noticed it, though wouldn't see it clearly until many years later, when one day, my friend Waz, a black man from the United States, said, "Y'all need to deal with your racist shit!" during a heated conversation about race in a circle of mostly white, American, young people in Santa Cruz, California. When he spoke, all of the white people in the circle were devastated and gave those same two responses.

And then I saw it again when my friend Evon Peter was speaking at the Bioneers conference and spent 10 minutes welcoming all of the people in the audience beginning with the other indigenous people there, the people of colour, the LGBTQ community and then said, "You may have noticed that there was a group I left out. So to all the white people here, if you are wanting to help us to protect our land and ways of life, you're welcome here. But if not, go back where you came from."

After he spoke, a middle aged white woman came up to him crying and asking him, "Why are you trying to divide us?" which is code for "We're all one!" and I'm sure other white people in the audience were sitting with guilt as if he had personally indicted them for the genocide of his people.

Evon's response was to lift up that he wasn't creating any divisions but simply holding up a mirror to the divisions that were already there. He was simply being a faithful reporter of how things are for his people. The divisions aren't the problem, the refusal to acknowledge them is. 

And so there are two responses that white people bring again and again.

Response #1 - The Universal: "We're all one."

The first is: "Why are you trying to divide us? We're all one! We're all connected. We're all human. We're all divine. You're making this about race and our differences. Why can't you feel my heart? All Lives Matter. I don't see colour or race when I look at you. I just see a human being." (the Universal). This sounds so noble and loving. And it produces memes like this.

On the surface, who could question this? Why would we want divisions? But, perhaps, we should also be aware of any ideology that refuses to acknowledge differences in the experiences, realities and ancestral stories of others. Perhaps the dogmatic ideology of oneness vanishes important things.

This point of view says, "Do you understand that labeling people based on the colour of their skin is the root of the problem?" is also a way of undercutting conversations about race, ancestry and history. It is a way of refusing to talk about how people from Africa became 'black' and people from Europe became 'white' and what that history has to do with the present state of affairs in the North American corner of the world. 

This point of view looks at racism as being 'treating people differently because of the colour of their skin' but refuses to see the history behind it and how racism has to do not only with prejudice but power. 

I recently posted this meme,

And someone replied, "It's amazing how racist (and illogical) that statement actually is. Not because I'm a white male and 'offended' by my 'privilege' being questioned. It is offensive because it is blatantly generalist and purposefully racistAs far as I have seen, life is inherently difficult for every living thing. Segmenting, grouping and then ultimately judging (good or bad) a group of people based on common traits, can be horrifically stupid and extremely damaging. (As is in this statement you have shared). Life is hard all over. These terms you are using of 'white people' and 'black people' are extremely barbaric.  Yes, some people are more oppressed than others. Most people are severely oppressed all over the world. When addressing a group of people such as:'attention white people' is a simple racist remark. My concern is that these terms do more harm than good because they divide us instead of unifying us. Who are 'they?' Perhaps 'they' should heal from 'blackness'? (Sounds quite stupid doesn't it?) These terms you are using are so muddled, so foggy, and incredibly misdirecting that you have to spend a considerable portion explaining what you're not saying, instead of saying what you want to say."

And, of course, blackness is as much of a scourge a whiteness ever was. Both are an amnesia that we are from anywhere. Both take diverse peoples from large land masses and turn them into one thing. Both come from very particular histories which have very specific legacies. The word 'white' didn't, in the beginning, mean anyone with pale skin. It meant some other things. And 'black' came from that same period of history and it meant more than just skin colour.

The unwillingness to see how I am treated because I am seen as 'white' and Waz is treated because he is seen as 'black' is the inability to see how history is alive right now.

His concern was what happens if we use these terms? My concern is the opposite - what if those terms describe the current state of affairs perfectly and we refuse to use them? Perhaps it is one of the most telling hallmarks of 'whiteness' to resist seeing collective levels of identity.

And then I posted this one,

And a friend, a white man, replied with the question, "Am I a white person?"

After some back and forth which showed me that I clearly need to write up a blog post on how I am defining 'white' and 'racism' I replied to him, "I would say you are white yes. And I would say that your response here is typical of what I laid out in that piece. The move to say 'but not all white people!' and 'I'm not in that boat! I'm not like that.' This piece, I imagine written by a person of colour, likely black and in the United States, is trying to say something. It's trying to lift something up for our consideration, as white people. It's trying to give us an insight into how we are seen and experienced, on the whole, as a group, by people of colour. It's saying something about not only a lifetime of experiences but generations of experiences. It's not speaking to you as an individual. It's speaking to the group you are a part of and trying to point out the troubled reputation this group has. It's trying to show us a pattern. Of course no pattern is absolute. Of course this would be more accurate if it said, "What many white people consider to be racism". Sure. But the defensiveness of 'not me!' is, in my mind, a part of the issue. Another response to this could be, "Wow. Yes. That is true of many white people - more than I wish it was true for." Do I think this author believes this is literally true of every single white person? No. Do I think they're trying to make a point worth considering? Yes. Do I think they're justified in making sweeping generalizations based on their experiences? I do. I don't blame them. And I don't take it personally. I know this isn't an attack on me. It's as if what they're trying to do is to say, "If I had to generalize and make all white people into one person and describe that person, based on my life experiences, they'd be _______. It's not healthy for a white person to take this on or take it on personally as the gospel. But I don't think it's healthy to ignore it either. Our experiences of people of colour are often based on a handful of experiences. But their experiences of us are often in the hundreds. Their experiences of us swamp ours of them. They see us constantly in every TV show, movie, in public office, on the news, in law enforcement etc. And it's not only their experiences they're reporting on. It's their grandparent's and parent's experiences too. It's not coming from nowhere."

In June of 2016, I sat at the University of Calgary at RedTalks where my friend Melina Laboucan-Massimo was sitting on a panel. A white man who looked to be in his sixties posed his question, to the panel. "When can we stop have this all be about race and start just treating each other equally."

I took a sharp breath in and saw her eyes widen as she looked quickly at a friend. The panel sat, a bit at a loss of how to respond and Cowboy Smith X passed the microphone directly to her to handle it. 

"I come from a collectivist culture," Melina said. "So the framing of the question is hard because it's asking me to separate myself from my culture and where I come from and just be 'Canadian'."

On the back of the sincere question asked to help create a new future were the same assumptions that had created the tragedies of the past. The unwillingness to see all of the ways that racism is alive is what keeps racism alive. The need to move past it before acknowledging its past, present and likely future, is what keep us from being able to change it. The unwillingness to sit with the immense grief and discomfort that comes from having no idea what to do about any of this is what stops the solution from appearing. The desire to reset everything and start fresh is what keeps us from seeing how deeply unequal things have become.

So, that's the first kind of response: We're all one. And that leads to a very strong reaction of anything that smells like it might be hinting at any sorts of divisions at all.


One of my friends, who is one of the finest men I know, wrote this on Facebook recently, "It's time for us to come together foremost as a united species of humanity and everyone needs to identify with that as their primary identity. Religion is the adversary that divides us into faiths and tribal alliances that feed egotism, hatred and war, not to mention that most organized religions are patriarchal, regressive of authentic liberty and subtly encourage ecocide by viewing the Earth as a fallen realm. For sure there's beauty to religion and it's not about throwing the baby out with the bathwater but we need some bold and radical steps as a species to meet the radical challenges of our times. It's to relegate religions to the past and give birth to unity consciousness. To a spiritual science revolution! We're all one!"

It's not that it's not true (though I have no idea what's true) it's that this kind of statement can be used to ignore and invisibilize the other two levels of identity. It's not true in this man's case but I've seen too many people in my life passionate about the idea of getting everyone under one umbrella... as long as they are the ones holding the umbrella. I've seen this become the most brutal form of control and silencing, more insidious because it comes across as love and unity. In the hands of men less astute than him, it can quickly become a sort of spiritual totalitarianism or privilege protected by the deflecting robes of Universal unity.

Amen to unity but the unity doesn't seem to appear all at once. It seems to appear as diversity. Diversity isn't the opposite of unity. It's the expression and embodiment of it.


Another colleague of mine, a speaker and author steeped deeply in the New Age scene, said this in response to the notions raised in this blog: "HOW ABOUT WE JUST START REFERRING TO OURSELVES as human.  Let's start a movement, so there is nothing to polarize about.  If everyone called themselves Human, then the form would be irrelevant. In my mind, over lifetimes, we've been everything anyhow, which makes referring to differences kinda ironic......who we are had nothing to do with the body, nor chemicals, not even done with fighting of all sorts............that's my rant for the day.  xoxoxo Tad Hargrave appreciating you." 

On one level, it seems like there's not much to argue with here. How can advocating for our oneness and connection be a bad thing? What's being said, explicitly here is that differences don't matter because this body and this world isn't really real. All that's real is Spirit. And, there's only one God, by the way, not a diversity of Gods. In this world, there's nothing particular or local to be celebrated. The fact that you have the nose you do because of those who came before you means nothing.  The fact that your culture is different and unique from mine? That means nothing too. And the fact that you are treated differently because of the colour of your skin? It's easier for me, as a white person, to ignore that it's happening because I'm refusing to see colour. This is an argument against diversity as anything important to be celebrated. 


Another Facebook friend posted this comment on a Facebook message I'd directed to #DearWhiteMen. He said, "Sort of humorous, but partly because it shows the foundational issue; categorization into & of humans no matter what the subject or objective is. The natural universe has no color or categories enabling controls or agendas, so what makes it?"

Of course, the universe does have colour. It is overflowing with colour. And, while he's exactly on point that categorizing humans into discrete groups in order to control them is a big part of what has created the mess we're in, what seems missed here is the beautiful diversity of human culture. 

But there is a larger issue missed when we call for 'oneness' which is about time and place. This call for oneness is happeining in a particular 'where' and a particular 'when'. It's happening in these times. It's happening in times when people of colour are targetted and oppressed and white people are privileged. To call for oneness without acknowledging this is an immense dishonour to our times. It is a vanishing of the experiences of anyone who isn't white. A more honest rendering might be, "We are all human and yet it seems that not all are being treated as such and so... what do we do about that?"

Response #2 - The Individual: "I didn't do it!"

The second response is: "But I wasn't there. I didn't own slaves. I didn't take your ancestors from Africa! I wasn't there. Why are you so angry at me? I didn't slaughter the buffalo. I didn't scalp your ancestors. Why are you attacking me? My life is hard too." (the Personal).

One woman, who I do not know, commented on the above meme on Facebook:

"Yes, whites oppressed blacks and it lasted much longer than the day slavery was abolished. But I didn't do it. I feel terrible that it happened, like all other terrible things in history, and I hate racism that continues today. Nowadays, the people holding themselves down due to their race are themselves. There is nothing we as white people can do to change it. We've apologized, we've given money, we've built social programs, none of those things work. They breed entitlement. And that gets you nowhere. Pick yourself up, go to school, work hard, get a job, don't run out on your family, don't spend more than you make, and stop voting for people who say you can't do any of those things."

If you engage in these conversations for any length of time, you will hear those two responses, "We're all one!" and "I didn't do it."

Both of them are, in essence, saying, "Can't we just pretend the past never happened?" or, far worse, unaware that it ever did. What they were saying was that they were unaware of the unique and devastating constellation of privileges and poverties inherent in whiteness

When I say whiteness and white people I mean... well, just go and read this piece on Understanding Whiteness

When Waz said, "Y'all need to deal with your racist shit." I don't think he was talking, in particular, to the people in the room (though I suspect he wasn't not talking to them). I would guess that he was speaking to them in the hopes that they were faithful representatives of this well established, larger Collective group of White People.

But, lacking this Collective understanding of themselves, they could only hear his words as either a personal attack directed to those people sitting in the room (the Personal level) or some misguided hurt he had due to his being lost in the illusion of separation (the Universal level). If the former was true, then the answer was obviously to make sure he was clear about their personal role or lack of role in the racism he had experienced. If the latter was true, then, bless his heart, he needed some healing for his anger before he caused more harm. 

It is worthy to note that neither the Universal or Individual ways of identifying ourselves have any roots in place or time. The Universal say 'we're all one and we've always been one so it doesn't matter when and where you're born' and the Individual level ignores the context around it. 'It doesn't matter when and where I was born.' it says. 'I would have been the same me, the same person regardless. Time and space are not the boss of me. They have no influence on me. Who I am is inherent and indwelling.'

Lacking this Collective lense, they could only hear his words through the Personal or Universal filters.

When he said, "Y'all need to deal with your racist shit." I don't think he was speaking just to the colour of the skin of the white people but to the culture and history that had become, like an unwelcome bur in the your clothing from a walk through the fields of history, stuck into the fabric of their days. Like something spilled on a carefully tanned and softened piece of white leather - perhaps red wine... or blood - that wasn't coming out any time soon. A reminder of something that had happened a long time ago. A crater, evidence of where a bomb had gone off a long time ago. In the one phrase he seemed to be indicting all of that, pointing to it and putting the responsibility for addressing it squarely on the collective shoulders of those whose obligation it was to do something with it. 

When he said, "Y'all" perhaps he was speaking not so much to the people in that circle but through them to everyone they knew, and might one day know, in the hopes that his pleas might reach their ears too. Perhaps he was hoping for well informed ambassadors from this group who could hear his words and nod in sober agreement saying, "Yes. All of what you say is true. We do need to do that." aware of the faults and failings of their own people without falling into a pit of shame because they also know the history of persecution and economic poverty that created the conditions out of which the racist shit grew.

He was hoping for messengers but was informed, instead, that his package was unfit for delivery or worse, that there was no one to deliver it to.

"We don't understand," the group seemed to be saying to him, carefully lowering their spectacles and peering at him over their rim, trying hard not to sound frustrated. "This address... 'White Culture'... I'm afraid there's no such thing. Is there someone particular you were trying to reach? And are you sure this message isn't for everyone? How can I help you?"

Additional Reading: